LLEWELLYN KING: No quick fix for Africa's energy crisis
July 08, 2013 10:10 AM

It is a lasting memory of Africa: Men walking dozens of miles searching for firewood. No stick is dismissed and is added to a bundle, mostly carried on the head.

In most of Africa, all 54 countries lying south of the Sahara Desert, food is a problem and so is something to cook it with. As populations have grown, so has destructive deforestation.

The problem is not confined to rural areas. It spreads out from the shanty towns that surround the cities. There is no electricity, so something must be burned. Of course, it means dismal living conditions. Life without electricity fits Hobbes’ description of life after war: “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Against this background, President Obama has proposed a $7 billion electrification initiative. To use an expression adopted from T.S. Eliot but popular in Africa, the grass must be singing.

It is the right proposal at the right time, but it is also fraught with huge difficulties of implementation.

The administration is quick to admit that to bring electricity to the 70 percent of Africans who do not have it will cost $300 billion, more to maintain the deteriorating electric systems that already exist in and around the cities.

Barry Worthington, executive director of the United States Energy Association, part of the World Energy Council (WEC), and an expert on African energy, says the president is to be commended “at least for raising the issue of the people who have no electricity and what that does to economies as well as the lives of the people.”

For years, Worthington says, the WEC and organizations like the World Bank have been trying to draw attention to the pitiable electric supply situation in Africa.

But he also says the fix will not be quick. The 54 countries that make up Africa south of Sahara Desert are among the most difficult in which to do business.

To start, there is something a little dreamy about Obama’s belief that the task will be undertaken by public-private partnerships. This is a concept more alluring in theory than in practice.

Obama will find that before they invest, corporations need to know what their chances of making money commensurate with the risks will be. To do this they need political stability, respect for property rights, and a legal system where they can seek redress if things go wrong. These basics are in short supply nearly all over Sub-Saharan Africa, with the possible exception of South Africa.

But looming above all is the destructive force of corruption. Corruption in Africa is interpreted as capitalism in practice. It has no shame; it is the way of the world.

In Zambia, for example, western mining companies that had operated copper mines there pulled out a decade ago abandoning hundreds of millions in new investment because corruption — sometimes operating as a kind of political protection money — became so severe that the mines could not operate and the needed investment was wasted. The Chinese became major players.

Two years ago, it appeared the Chinese had found new ways of dealing with the corruption issue but that seems to be faltering. Ghana is awash with Chinese freelance gold prospectors, who were initially encouraged to come and pan for alluvial gold; now they are being driven from the mining claims by corrupt licensing officials and gangs of thugs. China is not exempt.

Africa is rich in energy with coal, gas, oil, rivers suitable for hydroelectric development, sunshine and uranium. Yet global non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have a proprietary attitude to Africa, and they subscribe to a kind of environmental imperialism in which only “renewable” technologies that get their seal of approval should be pursued.

Hardly had Obama finished his speech than Emira Woods of the Institute for Policy Studies was on the PBS NewsHour denouncing coal, gas and hydro as environmentally unacceptable African power systems. One assumes that leaves wind and solar, but there’s not enough heft there to lift up a continent.

There have been electric power successes in countries like Botswana, Cameroon and Tanzania. Worthington says: “At least the president has shone a light on the crisis. The need is great.”

The grass may indeed be singing, but softly.

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